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Hearing will determine who can take part in upcoming inquest into fire deaths

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Nickel Belt News file photo

A hearing to determine who can participate in an inquest into four deaths caused by two Northern Manitoba fires in 2001, including one at this house in St. Theresa Point that killed a two-and-a-half-month-old girl, will be held in Winnipeg Feb. 24.

A hearing to determine who can participate in an inquest into the deaths of four people three of them children under five years old in remote Northern Manitoba First Nations will be held Fe. 24 at 10 a.m. at the Law Courts Complex in Winnipeg.

People who wish to seek standing to participate are asked to attend next Friday's hearing, during which the inquest judge will determine who can question and call witnesses at the inquest itself.

The inquest was ordered by the chief medical examiner to examine the deaths of two-and-a-half-month-old Errabella Harper - who died in a Jan. 16, 2011 fire in St. Theresa Point - and of Demus James, 73, and his grandchildren Throne Kirkness, 2, and Kayleigh Okemow, 3, in a March 14, 2011 fire at God's Lake Narrows.

The chief medical examiner suggested that the inquests be combined because of the similarities between them. The fire in St. Theresa Point was determined to be of accidental origin, caused by a malfunctioning wood heating system in the house. The cause of the God's Lake Narrows fire was undetermined, but there were indications that it was accidental, possibly caused by a baseboard heater malfunctioning.

Timothy Mason, a band constable at St. Theresa Point, entered the house fire there through a bedroom window and retrieved a 16-month-old child who was in the house, but smoke and flames prevented him from reaching Harper. He and another community member then used a chainsaw to cut a hole through the bedroom wall, enabling them to rescue Harper. Both infants were taken to the local nursing station for treatment, where Harper was pronounced dead, while the older infant, suffering from smoke inhalation, was transported to Winnipeg for treatment.

Six children, from two months to 13 years old, were sleeping in the home at the time of the fire, which began in the chimney, then spread through the attic and the rest of the house, the Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner determined. An adult relative of the children, who had been looking after them, was next door when the fire broke out. The flames were eventually extinguished by community firefighters.

James, Kirkness and Okemow died in a fire that God's Lake Narrows community members tried to extinguish before RCMP arrived but were unable to, in part because the community didn't have a fire truck at that time.

The following morning, RCMP officers guarding the site of the fire were confronted by an armed male subject and one of the officers shot him. That man was pronounced dead at the God's Lake Narrows nursing station.

The chief medical examiner investigates unexpected and violent deaths, and deaths involving children are reported to the medical examiner's office. Inquests are called if the chief medical examiner feels the general public can benefit from the information that will be made public through such a hearing. Inquests are usually held in provincial court in front of a provincial judge. They are intended to examine the facts surrounding a death, with a Crown attorney calling witnesses to testify under oath. Next of kin may be represented by a lawyer who can cross-examine the witnesses. Inquests are not meant to determine who is to blame for a death, but often result in recommendations from the judge on how to prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future.

The chief medical examiner has suggested that the inquest into the Northern Manitoba fire deaths look at firefighting equipment and fire detection, prevention, regulation, policies and inspection practices on Manitoba's First Nations.

The date of the inquest will be set following next Friday's standing hearing.

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